Recipes from The Kitchn

The 10 Easiest Make-Ahead Meals Anyone Can Cook

Image Credit: Joe Lingeman

There's an Econ 101 concept called comparative advantage. You've heard of it — it just means some people are more efficient (and/or more effective) at doing things than others. In our kitchen, it means I make dinner. I'm home from work earlier, and I'm a recipe developer by trade, and my partner doesn't really cook. It means we have a very traditional separation of labor at home, and it works for us.

The Vacation Trap

But sometimes — like when we're on vacation — it all feels a little unfair. If we rent a place for a long weekend, he leaves his house chores at home, but I bring mine with us. Which means come dinnertime on the beach, I turn back into the cook and he cracks a beer.

It's not that he doesn't want to help — it's that he doesn't automatically think about meals the same way I do. Essentially, if he hasn't been specifically tasked with making dinner, it won't cross his mind. The sun will set, our son's stomach will rumble audibly, he'll see a s'mores fire somewhere down the beach, and only then it might occur to him that 7 p.m. would have been a good time to start thinking about cooking.

Over the years, I've learned that I can't resent him for not thinking about food the same way I do. He's a different person, with a different radar for what needs to be done. I've learned how to ask him for help; I have to do it in advance ("Can you please be in charge of getting dinner together tonight?") and I have to be specific ("There's chicken ready to grill, and the instructions are on the sticky note on the kitchen counter. I'll be back at 6.")

My Make-Ahead Meal Strategy

We've also learned that while he's not really a cook, he's a darn good assembler. My best strategy is preparing things well enough ahead of time that he can assemble what I've done. At home, that means leaving a sheet pan supper mostly done in the fridge, so he can roast everything and get dinner on the table. On vacation, it means allowing him to essentially cook by number.

Take a salad Niçoise, for example. I'll make the dressing and steam potatoes and green beans ahead, and make him a list of other things to do — cutting tomatoes, washing lettuce, grilling fresh albacore. I show him a path, and he takes it. If it sounds like I'm enabling him to continue only half-cooking in our house while I take on the brunt of the efforts, it's because that's true — it's not really him cooking, it's me cooking ahead. I get that. Still, it means I don't have to physically be in the kitchen at dinnertime, but I get to eat a great dinner. For us, it works. And to be fair, I rarely touch the dishes after dinner. (And taking out the garbage falls almost entirely to him, no matter where we are.)

Here are my 10 favorite make-ahead meals that someone else can finish off for me. They're great for vacation, but also perfect for families with new babies, friends who need a treat, or parents who don't like to cook.

10 Meals to Prepare Ahead of Time

  1. Spaghetti Bolognese: With the slow cooker approach, you set it and forget it.
  2. Hand pies: Because they're fun, require no dishes to serve, and are totally freezable.
  3. Nachos: Can't everyone make nachos?
  4. Gyoza or dumplings: We make extra for a multi-family dinner a few weeks before, freeze them, and bring frozen extras on vacation. Also, Trader Joe's exists for a reason.
  5. Chili: Makes hot dogs fancy (and kicks the cold on a rainy night).
  6. Enchiladas: They freeze beautifully, and you can even make them in the slow cooker.
  7. Panini: Assemble ahead, press to order. Use this tip for less mess!
  8. Grain bowls: Cook the grains, marinate proteins, and make a sauce in advance.
  9. Sheet pan burgers: But remember, you can cook a burger without an oven or a grill, too.
  10. Pulled Pork: From sandwiches to tacos to salads, good pulled pork is money in the bank.